LEBANON, Tenn. — Ross Chastain, driving for Chip Ganassi Racing at the time, enjoyed his best weekend of the season last year with a runner-up finish at Nashville Superspeedway.
It was a nice story at the time, but one that didn’t impact the season at large or even the future of that franchise. CGR announced the sale of its assets to Chastain’s current team not even two weeks later. Chastain had just one top five the rest of the way; he missed the playoffs and finished 20th in the standings.
“My world is pretty much opposite just from where I was at this point last year in life and my career to the performance we’ve put together this entire season, where we finished second and it was the greatest thing to happen to us all year,” Chastain said after picking up his eighth top five of the season in Sunday’s Ally 400.
That number more than doubles his career total from before the season, and he’s done it in just 17 races.
“Now, we finish fifth and it’s exactly what we’re supposed to do,” Chastain said. “We had the fifth-place car and we needed to finish fifth with it. We don’t need to wreck trying to get third and we don’t need to run ninth with it, we need to run fifth. For me, it checks just as many boxes and gets me just as excited that we executed tonight exactly where we should’ve.”
Chastain has lit the series on fire in 2022, as he and Trackhouse as a whole have seemingly come out of nowhere to hone themselves into legitimate title contenders with three wins and 11 top fives between him and teammate Daniel Suárez. To go from a season of searching for moral victories driving for a lame-duck organization to arguably the favorite to win it all while knocking on the door of a Regular Season Championship is a rarity in a sport with perennial heavyweights like Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske making Championship 4 reservations season after season.
What a difference a year — or 17 — makes.
“12-year-old Ross is like ‘What? You could be leading the Cup Series points standings straight up in a few weeks or at any point?’ That’s wild,” said the 29-year-old Chastain. “Go fast, acquire points and it all kind of works itself out. … but yeah, little kid Ross is like ‘What in the world? This can’t be real.’
“I just want to be competitive. I want to go fast and get more points than everybody else and that’ll all sort itself out, but of course it’s a goal (to win the Regular Season Championship).”
Part of Chastain’s success has been the fast cars crew chief Phil Surgen has unloaded off the truck most weekends, but the No. 1 team continues to make strong calls late in the race as well.
There was an extreme variance in pit strategies on the final caution of the race, with Surgen electing to take Chastain down pit road for a full set of tires. While that didn’t work out for all the teams that went this route — and race winner Chase Elliott elected to stay out to maintain track position, which clearly worked — it was the game-changer for the No. 1.
“It was incredible,” said Chastain. “You never want to be the last car on old tires and as soon as we got down into Turn 1 we had grip and I got to Cole (Custer’s) back bumper off of (Turn) 2 and pushed him as long as I could. I wanted to try to tandem and help him and help me, selfishly, hooked out, found clean air and kind of knifed my way through there and held off some guys there on the last lap to hold onto fifth. It was just kind of where the seas parted on Turns 1 and 2 for us on fresh tires.
“When we pitted, I thought we were about to win Nashville and then whenever we left pit road on the access road, I saw how many cars stayed out and I didn’t know how many cars were a lap down or anything but I knew it was more than I wanted. I wanted to restart sixth and instead I was 13th.
“But you just play your best hand and Phil Surgen and our group will go to bed very well tonight knowing we made a good call to win the race. It just didn’t quite work out.”
While we’ve seen some teams come and go throughout the year, Trackhouse has maintained its stature better than most.
Don’t expect that to change next weekend at Road America for the season’s third road-course race, either. Two of the team’s three wins on the season came earlier this year at Circuit of The Americas and Sonoma Raceway.
And 12-year-old Ross Chastain probably wouldn’t believe that, either.